Choi Kang-hee and Jeonbuk make history in Asian Champions League
When Jeonbuk Motors exited the 2015 Asian Champions League at the quarterfinal stage thanks to a last-gasp Gamba Osaka goal, coach Choi Kang-hee returned to South Korea and promised to start preparations for the 2016 edition.
Spurred on by the loss, almost as painful as a penalty shootout defeat in the 2011 final against Al Sadd, Jeonbuk went shopping in order to build what was called a "double squad" -- one with options in every position.
And on Saturday Nov. 26, it paid dividends as Kyo-Won Han, a substitute winger, scored the goal that clinched the 2016 Asian Champions League for the Greens. It ensured the second leg at the home of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates ended 1-1, enough for the Koreans to win 3-2 on aggregate.
It wasn't looking good in the first leg a week earlier as the UAE team, known as The Boss, took the lead at Jeonju World Cup Stadium through Danilo Asprilla. The Colombian's 64th minute opener was seen by Jeonbuk's Leonardo six minutes later and then raised by the Brazilian, who added a second from the spot to give Jeonbuk a 2-1 advantage. Both teams felt they could have had more.
If the first leg goals were all scored by South Americans, those in the second leg came from South Korea. Han fired home on the half hour to put the visitors firmly in control but then four minutes later Al Ain's Korean midfielder Lee Myung Joo levelled on the night. The hosts still needed two more to win and that was always going to be tough once Asprilla skied a spot kick over just before the break.
Jeonbuk become a double ACL winner, then, joining Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia and China's Guangzhou Evergrande in an exclusive club.
The first came in 2006, the second a decade later -- wins to bookend a decade that contained the 2011 final loss. Few could argue this latest win was undeserved. The team topped their group, defeated Melbourne Victory in the second round, thrashed star-studded Shanghai SIPG (pushing Sven-Goran Eriksson towards the sack) in the last eight before overcoming FC Seoul in the semis.
This is the club that Choi built. When he took over in 2005, the Motors were a middling, at best, K-League team that had reached Asian competition through the domestic cup. They had never won or really challenged for the home title.
There have since been four domestic titles, the first coming in 2009, and there would have been a fifth in 2016 had the Motors not been docked nine points after a club scout was found guilty of bribing referees in 2013.
There has been growth off the pitch too with facilities that would be welcome anywhere in the world. So successful has it all been that football executives in the country have wistfully wished that the Hyundai-owned club was moved north (relocations are not unheard of in Korea) to swap the medium-sized provincial city of Jeonju to the megalopolis of Seoul with its overall catchment area of 25 million-plus.
Even so, over the years, the club has built a support base with an average of 17,000 down in the relatively rural south-west of the country despite the stadium being far from downtown and hard to get to. They have seen more Asian Champions League games than any other over the years, with Jeonbuk reaching the knockout stage this year for a record ninth time.
Such consistency does not always result in recognition. Compared to the big-spending Chinese Super League outfits, Jeonbuk get fewer headlines but better results in Asia. A lack of star names does not mean a lack of talent.
Midfielder Lee Jae-Sung and Kim Bo-Kyung are top quality with Brazilian Leonardo and Ricardo Lopes bringing guile and pace. Coach Choi has plenty of striking options too: Lee Dong-Gook can't start as much as he used to the age of 37 but Kim Shin-Wook or the skillful Jong-Ho Lee are strong potential replacements.
The defence is not quite as impressive but there are warriors like Kim Hyung-Il (who won the 2009 title with Pohang Steelers) and Cho Sung-Hwan, flanked by underrated and reliable full-backs and backed by a solid goalkeeper in Kwon Soon-Tae.
These players will represent Asia at the Club World Cup in December. It remains to be seen if these are Choi's last games in charge. After 11 years (apart from an 18-month spell as national team boss during qualification for the 2014 World Cup) he has won pretty much all there is and more than once.
His place in Asian football history is assured and the same can be said for Jeonbuk Motors, a giant of the continental scene.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.